Van Life in Lockdown

van life in lockdown 2020

Looking back at the last few months, spending lockdown in a van – 2 adults and 2 dogs in a box 6m by 2m – has been at times strange, intense and worrying! As ever we’ve tried to make the best of it. In many ways, we count ourselves lucky!

We’d rented our house out for another year – just 2 days before the lockdown started. At first, we thought, “No worries, we can wild camp”, but we began to hear reports of a backlash against hordes of campervans and motorhomes descending on parts of Cornwall and Scotland. So we had to rethink. Fortunately, we were able to book in as permanent/seasonal residents at a site we knew in County Durham so we at least we had a place to park up safely. Looking back, we certainly did the right thing. Although we spent lockdown in a relatively tiny space and couldn’t travel around, we never really felt cooped up or stir crazy as we had so much freedom on the site, great weather and loads of wildlife all around.

Motorhome are perfect self-isolation bubbles

In some ways, we were already used to isolation. We’d spent the last year away from our families and friends, keeping in touch with them with video calls (and endless games of Words with Friends with my Mam). One of the aims of taking time to travel was to spend more time together and with the dogs, so we embraced that: lots of walks, enjoying our sundowners with puzzles and games, researching and making plans for the future, streaming some movies and TV shows on NowTV, Netflix and Amazon. And we each had our own projects on the go.

Obviously, it’s very worrying when you have family in the at-risk category (oldies). Mostly they’ve followed the guidance and so far, all is well. We really enjoyed social distance visits in the garden. We’d had our brush with COVID-19 early on. Though it was very mild for us both, we both still occasionally feel the after-effects. My sense of smell is still shot, and Bev had the bizarre ‘covid toes’ (google it!). It definitely reinforced our feelings of seizing the moment, appreciating our physical and mental health, and treasuring time together.

New healthy habits

We started some new habits in lockdown, to help stay positive and appreciate what we had, rather than dwell on the things we couldn’t do and places we couldn’t go. Each night, we’d ask each other, “What were your 3 favourite things today?” and look back on the day. I’m not sure I realised how much we like eating and drinking! 

Restaurant of the week’ became a bit of a regular thing. Instead of going out for a meal – we were in lockdown after all – we’d ‘dine out’ at a different establishment every other week. We’d make an effort with flowers on the table or suitable music, trying new recipes, dressing for dinner, etc. Daft, but fun…

Other variations on the theme… Ristorante Motorhome with the ‘Café Italiano’ soundtrack, Vietnamese ‘nhà hàng trên bánh xe’ (‘Restaurant on Wheels’) and a French bistro ‘Chez Nous’

Another routine: With our coffee after breakfast, we read our entry for that day in last year’s travel diary. We’ve read about getting our new home on wheels, a Benimar Mileo 201, our first days of van life, our adventures through France, Belgium, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. We remember the best bits, and the dramas, and look out for moments we can recreate, like going for a bike ride, having an ice cream or a particular meal or cocktail.

Lockdown habits - reading last years diary to keep our spirits up.

The Good Life

One of the things Bev is most looking forward to when we finally settle down is setting up a smallholding – growing fruit and veg and keeping chickens. We didn’t get as far as chickens but being in one place for a spell gave her a chance to set up an impromptu allotment. She got some seeds (summer salad, spinach, rocket, sweet peas) and some borlotti beans from our storage unit, and her sister Fran donated some pea and courgette seedlings. With a few grow bags, some mole hill soil, an old recycling bin, various recycled containers, odd sticks lying around the site as canes, and a 4 pint plastic milk carton as a watering can, she set to work. She even planted a dodgy bit she cut off the end of a potato!

The weather was great for growing. Apart from the fickle courgette, it all went very well. We’ve had loads of salad leaves and rocket, spinach for our smoothies and scrambled eggs. We ate lots of the peas as mangetout, not knowing whether we’d be around to pick them all as peas. The sweet peas smell great in the van.

Taking it up a level – she even got into home pickling. Can’t beat a pickled egg in a pack of salt and vinegar crisps with a pint of ale. Perfect pub snack! Got a glut of chilli peppers from the supermarket, more than you can use? – No problem, pickled! Perfect topping for enchiladas or on one of our favourite indulgences, nachos grande!

The baking just gets better and better. Lemon drizzle, Victoria sponge, Carrot cake, croissants. I’ve had to employ various ‘portion control’ strategies or I won’t fit my clothes.

CuteCardsByB on Etsy

With the galleries closed, Bev decided to set up an Etsy store. It’s going really well. She’s sold her cool and quirky embroidered cards and notepads to customers all over the country, and abroad as far as Spain!

One-off designs have included a greater spotted woodpecker, Minecraft and Harry Potter inspired motifs, and a FAB lolly!

Lockdown Music

Although all live shows were cancelled, I’ve been keeping busy. I did a couple of live streams, one of which has been viewed over 1600 times now, which has got to be a record for me!

I joined a group of north east musicians on a collaborative project, which turned out to be like a massive musical jigsaw. Good fun and a chance to practice with the recording software. Here’s my track…

Here’s one of harmonica hero Martin Fletcher’s tracks, more or less from the same source material: https://soundcloud.com/harmonicagod/miss-corona-downhome-style

My album Brass Neck! is still getting a lot of airplay around the UK. I’m really grateful for the DJs keeping that going. Big cheers especially to Gary Grainger, Ian McKenzie, Richard Harris and Paul ‘Pablo’ Stewart. Check out their shows – all good stuff…

Listen to “Rockin’ The Blues 090620” on Spreaker.

The best news:  The very first day they opened up, with social distancing measures in place, I went back into Ginger Music studios to record some acoustic guitar and vocals. I worked on the first tracks for 3 new projects – more original blues on a follow up to Brass Neck!, a cowboy/western themed piece, and some lighter, brighter folk/americana songs. The first release will be ‘Travelling Girl’ – words by Bev! – announcements on that soon!   

Paying the bills

With all gigs cancelled, we had to rely on the income from Spotify streams. It works out about 0.4 american cents per stream or a whole 4 cents if someone plays all 10 tracks. So we probably burned through all my royalties boiling the kettle for a cuppa on day one on the site 😉

Fortunately, I’d started taking on some remote freelance and contract work over the last few months and it was going well. The Digital Nomad lifestyle appeals! With uncertainty around how long lockdown would last and when we might be able to travel, I thought I may as well start looking. I was lucky to find a great project to work on, with a really nice team. Really enjoying it 🙂

What’s next?

Obviously, there is still uncertainty, even as businesses start to open up and travel restrictions are easing. I was gutted to miss the Sabar blues festival in Hungary in early July – looks like they had an awesome time. I really don’t want to miss any more bookings – so we’re getting ready now to travel to southern Sweden for a return visit to a cool beach bar and venue for a show on August 6th. Hopefully, all will go smoothly!

Update on van life costs

Two of the most read posts on the blog are “How much does it cost to run a campervan?” and the update I did after a few months in the newer, bigger motorhome, “75 days into our van life and European adventure – progress and costs”. I promised another update – so here’s the fun facts, figures and stats after 9 months…

Average Daily Costs

Adding up all the costs – except the one huge outlay for the purchase of the van! – and dividing by the number of days gives a headline spend of £54.85 a day. Here’s how that breaks down:

As mentioned in other posts, we can’t treat everyday like a holiday. We try to spend at least a little cash in every town we stay, but we certainly don’t eat out everyday. For us, it’s part of the adventure – cooking in the van and entertaining ourselves, making it a home from home. That £21 a day on Shopping/Social covers, for 2 adults and 2 dogs: food, drink, boring shopping (scourers, loo roll, washing up liquid, dog poo bags), toiletries, new clothes and shoes when things wear out, dining out and socialising, art galleries, cinemas, attractions, etc.

Various Van Costs covers up-front, ad-hoc and regular costs like insurance, the GPS tracker subscription, MOT, servicing, repairs and purchases like chocks, winter tyres, snow chains. That covers about 18% of our total spend, which is probably more than we might have set aside for contingencies. Worth considering that if anyone is budgeting for a similar trip.

Fuel – about 15% of our daily spend – works out at about 18p a mile.

Our average spend per night on site fees is down to £6.20 – this is mainly due to us getting much more comfortable wild camping. Park4night has been invaluable, highly recommended. In December, we stayed just 9 nights on a site – so that’s over 70% wild or free camping.

Thinking ahead to winter camping in Austria, we invested in a fixed LPG tank. This has bumped our gas costs up for now, but every time we fill it costs just £10-12 instead of around £35 to swap a bottle. It will have paid for itself after another 10 refills. An 11kg bottle (which holds around 20 litres of gas) lasts 9 to 12 days at the moment, whereas in summer it lasted well over a month.

We avoid tolls mainly – in France, Spain and Italy, for example, you just don’t get to see the little towns and villages and while they might save time, they’re often longer journeys in terms of miles and diesel. This cost is mainly Eurotunnels, a few ferries and the bridges in Denmark.

Finally, I think we’ve been very well served by EE using our phones and mobile data abroad. 4G signal is usually available, with the exception of Germany where it was really patchy, which surprised us. Watch out in Andorra, which is not EU, so the free roaming did not apply – Flight mode on 🙂 Signs so far point towards us still being able to use UK allowances in Europe after Brexit – I really hope so. We’ve used a bit more data in winter, settling in on a night to watch a box set on Amazon or Now TV.

Miles, MPG and Diesel Costs

Average miles traveled per day: 45

I use an app called Simply Auto to track some of our expenses – diesel, lpg gas, camp site fees, MOT, repairs, etc. Plotting the mileage figures against the dates shows we’ve been quite consistently on the move around that 45 miles/day average:

Countries visited: 20

UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Monaco, Switzerland, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Andorra, Spain

We’re on to our second ‘lap’ of Europe now, heading into Italy after Christmas and New Year along the Costa Brava and the south coast of France.

Average miles between fill-ups: 392

Average fuel efficiency overall is at 30.6 mpg, but it’s been noticeably worse over recent months. We were a bit heavier with extra guitars and have occasionally had to run the engine to top up the leisure batteries. In the UK, with shorter grey days, the solar charger couldn’t keep up with our demands. (Mainly me, working on the album on the laptop!)

Average price paid for a litre of diesel: £1.22

Here’s how different countries compared…

Average price paid over 33 fill-ups from April to December 2019.

Several times now, we’ve found it’s worth a small detour into Luxembourg to fill up. Lots of French, Belgians and Germans do the same – you can see them queuing at the first station over the border. Andorra – a tax haven – was full of French and Spanish shoppers buying duty free booze, fags and fuel. I’ve never seen so many petrol stations in such a small area! The Spanish price was surprising low – but again that was just over the border from France, luring folk in. 

At the other end of the scale, Sweden, Italy and the UK came in at or over the £1.30 mark.

Estimated Annual Costs

Our house is still rented out, so we’re aiming to stay in the van for a full year. Looks like we’re still on track for around £20,000 – probably just over now, with a few repairs and additional van costs like the winter tyres and snow chains.

Questions?

Happy to answer any questions anyone might have. If you’re planning a similar trip or there’s something I’ve not covered here, you can message via the facebook page, @howaskew on instagram or on twitter. Go on, ask me how many times I’ve had to empty the loo. (You can probably guess how many times Bev’s done it.)

What’s the plan?

After a spell in the UK – band gigs in September, a trip to Scotland, recording the new album, catching up with our Newcastle friends and seeing our families for early Christmas celebrations – we set off early December, more or less back to our “the plan is, there is no plan” approach, practicing the art of bimbling…

  • seeing some sights and enjoying our freedom to travel around Europe (while it lasts)
  • living more simply and more healthily, being outdoors, eating well
  • spending more time together, and seeing friends and family
  • playing more music, writing new songs
  • heading towards Austria to test our winterised van and do some cross country skiing 

That should take us up till mid March. I’ve started keeping an eye open for stats and data science project work, but until then we’ll just keep rolling, looking for gigs along the way.

Icons made by Smashicon, Those Icons and OCHA from www.flaticon.com

Charts made in RStudio, using dplyr, ggplot2, countrycode, ggflag, maps, mapdata

Foraging, baking and fishing…

Part of van life is to try to make it feel like a home from home, especially if you’re using it as a long term base. For me, this means eating as healthily as we did at home, and to trying to ensure a varied diet. So, I’ve been out foraging – trying to find fresh, free ingredients on our travels. Sweden in particular was great for this, not just because of the timing of our visit there, but because foraging and fishing are allowed pretty much anywhere. Since then, we’ve kept our eyes open along the way – through Germany, Holland, Belgium, France and now back in the UK.

Things we have foraged include…

Elderflowers

Made some delicious refreshing cordial in Slovakia.

Blueberries and bilberries

I’ve made several pies and some lovely jam. I’ve also added them to our morning smoothie.

Samphire

On the Dutch coast, we found plenty and enjoyed it blanched with a sardine salad and also with tuna pasta dishes. It’s salty flavour really goes well with seafood.

Cob nuts

A type of hazelnut, I waited for them to go brown, toasted them and added them to our breakfast bars instead of almonds. We don’t have a nut cracker in the van… so I used the pliers!! Everything has more than one use, it’s about time those pliers earned their keep.

Apples and Blackberries

Now we’re back in the UK, there’s plenty of blackberries and apples, so I’m looking forward to long walks foraging with the dogs, and a surfeit of crumbles… mmm!

Wild raspberries too – Didn’t find a huge amount (Boo learned how to pick them, so we lost a good few!) but they were great on top of our breakfast cereal.

Fish!!??

Our good friend Guy has lent us a fishing rod, so if and when we head back to Europe, we’re going to be spending some time in the lakes of Germany and Sweden trying to catch our supper. We’ve had a first foray in the North sea at Robin Hood’s Bay, hoping to catch sea bass…will keep you posted…

Lavender

I made some scented wardrobe hangers from flowers we collected in Hungary and Slovakia.

Baking Update

In addition to baking breads and pizzas as previously reported, I’ve made all sorts – Here’s a selection of the best efforts…

Bread

Cracked this now – the secret is turning it 5 times in our Thetford gas oven. Home-made blueberry jam on home-made toast – perfect!

Melting peanut butter chocolate puds

Another favourite comfort pud from home, works a treat in the van.

Flarn

A Swedish recipe, from our friend Ucci’s Dad. They are thin, coconut and orange biscuit – deliciously with or without buttercream filling.

Pizza, Ciabatta and garlic bread

Thin crust pizzas, made from scratch – they require careful turning in the oven, but well worth the effort.

Chelsea buns

Sticky, cinnamon goodness – Another firm favourite!

Cookies

White chocolate and cranberry! We had mixed results with a certain batch of Italian butter, but these are usually a quick and tasty treat.